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Opportunities abound for New Mexico’s outdoor business

Axie Navas, a former Outside editor, is tasked with finding those companies and supporting their needs through the state's new office.

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Axie Navas headshot
Axie Navas started as director of New Mexico’s Office of Outdoor Recreation on Sept. 23, 2019.Courtesy

New Mexico isn’t just miles and miles of barren desert: There are plenty of outdoor adventures to be had. Axie Navas will tell you. It’s now her job to promote the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities and uplift its outdoor business as the first-ever director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation.

“New Mexico is a player in the outdoor space and [the office is] going to make a big difference for our economy,” Navas told SNEWS a month into the role. “It’s existential to some of these communities. It’s what will keep the lights on after the coal plant closes.”

Navas has lived in New Mexico for nearly eight years, and most recently, she ran Outside‘s website as digital editorial director. She helped hone the publication’s messages of inclusivity in the outdoors and advocacy of public lands, and now she’s doing it for her state.

We talked to Navas by phone while she was on her way back to Santa Fe after a listening tour, four weeks into her new gig.

You’ve written about public lands and government and now you’re working for public lands and in government. What prompted you to make the jump from media?

I think what New Mexico is doing is really progressive. There’s energy here to protect public lands, make access inclusive, and diversify the revenue through outdoor recreation. That’s pretty fundamentally opposed to what we see at the federal level. One thing that’s been eye-opening over the past month is that at all levels of the Department of the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture, you have people doing such good work to protect these places. I do think we have to be critical of some of the top-level changes at the Interior (like Ryan Zinke’s “scandals” during his time in office and the agency’s prioritization of extraction over public lands), but I’m excited to be working with the people who are making the policy decisions. It’s an inspiring movement to be a part of.

Tell us how New Mexico is progressive.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wanted this office and wanted to make outdoor recreation a priority, so we can diversify away from oil and gas. Here, 46 percent of the GDP is oil and gas right now. We also have the Energy Transition Act to move toward renewable energy. Stephanie Garcia Richards is the land commissioner and she’s making it her mandate to open up trust lands for recreation and not just the highest value use, which is typically oil and gas leases. Conservation and access are lynchpins of the outdoor recreation office.

What have been your tasks in the first month?

Right now, I’m on my way back from a listening tour to hear what towns and cities throughout the state are most excited about when it comes to outdoor recreation opportunities. I asked Luis Benitez (Colorado’s former outdoor recreation industry office director) the first thing he did when he took office and he said he asked for gas money and drove around Colorado. Peter Mitchell, the Deputy Director of the Outdoor Recreation Division, and I went to Silver City, almost 300 miles from Santa Fe, then Deming, Truth or Consequences, and Elephant Butte to listen to residents’ needs. All told, we traveled about 650 miles.

Axie Navas is an avid skier, hiker, and biker. She is pictured skiing Kachina, at Taos Ski Valley,Courtesy

What’s unique about New Mexico’s outdoor recreation industry?

The tagline for the tourism here is “adventure steeped in culture.” I think that sums it up well. You have a lot of tribal land and a lot of tribes doing awesome things when it comes to outdoor recreation. You have this melding of culture that has led to a very different state than Colorado or Utah or Arizona. I think you get that when you’re out in these towns.

Part of the legislation that passed was the Outdoor Equity Fund. That came about organically through a couple leaders in this space who really wanted to make sure outdoor recreation is equitable. The fund will go to applicants who serve kids from urban, rural, and tribal parts of the state. We’ll give grants to programs that get these kids outside, and ideally teach them about some aspect of the outdoors, like climate change or Leave No Trace–basic stewardship principals. It’s a super robust initiative.

What existing outdoor companies are you helping to grow?

There’s a 21-year-old making really high-quality, lightweight dry bags in his basement in Silver City. There are also a few really cool companies in Aztec, a tiny town almost on the northern border with Colorado, called Jack’s Plastic Welding and Paco Pads. They make custom rafts and super cush sleeping pads with a cult following. There’s another guy in Albuquerque with an app to help retailers quantify the benefits of brick and mortar. I think there are probably about a dozen companies of varying sizes and we want to sit down with their CEOs and say, “How can we help?” New Mexico, at least right now, doesn’t have a VF Corporation or a Salewa or a Patagonia. It’s only a matter of time, but right now, there’s some work we can do uniting the groups already here and building up these scrappy guys who are doing awesome work.

How will storytelling continue to play into your career?

The office was created through a legislative action, so we’ll be using storytelling to show legislators what we’ve done by weaving that into a coherent narrative. Another mission of the office is telling the story of New Mexico and the outdoor recreation opportunities here, and getting creative with how we do that. New Mexico is actually a leader in this space. A lot of people think it’s mostly desert and there’s not a lot to do outside, and that’s totally false.